Sylvielin's Blog

Art and Politics Revisited. Interview with Robert Kluijver (IV)

Posted in Interviews with Curators/Museum Directors by sylvielin on October 4, 2010

‘I think that art has some kind of seismographic function. A seismograph can register movements happening deep down in the Earth that may erupt. Artists have the same kind of sensibility : even if they themselves are not aware of it, they somehow express such undercurrents inside the so-called collective unconsciousness.’ –– RobertK, extract from the interview

IV. The West and Its ‘Other’


Q   In the situation where it is still largely the West that holds the power of institutionalising and legitimising contemporary art practices in the non-Western countries or other economically, politically under-privileged regions, how do you, also of the Western background, manage to understand and to integrate yourself, as an actor in the cultural-political field, in the context of an ‘other’? Such themes can also be found in your current lectures in the Science Po.

A   First, I do believe I have a truly global vision on the situation in the world, as I have been traveling and living in many different countries since my birth. I respect very much how other cultures operate without imposing the idea that they should follow the West. For me, politically, the West is in a kind of dead end. We don’t have any more imagination for the future. Neither can we imagine a different world. We can only imagine the same situation, but better, with more security, less death, more wealth, etc. That’s why we are completely incapable of solving ecological problems, issues of global poverty or other pressing global management issues. Our response to these challenges is to refuse change, and try to suppress it by any means possible: with money, laws or weapons. I hope to find some different impulses in non-Western societies which may provide some elements to resolve these questions.

In the artistic context, the typical Western attitude is to deal with non-Western art from a position of superiority. Westerners always look at non-Western art through a comparison according to the Western standards which are assumed to be superior. For isn’t contemporary art a Western construction?

My political quest is: assuming that the West is in a dead end, what can we find in other cultures that would be good for the global community ? How do these possibly positive influences manifest themselves? In the realm of politics, there’s no answer to these fundamental political problems. The answer can only come from the outside. And it is there that I turn to art. I think that art has some kind of seismographic function. A seismograph can register movements happening deep down in the Earth that may erupt. Artists have the same kind of sensibility : even if they themselves are not aware of it, they somehow express such undercurrents inside the so-called collective unconsciousness. Or let’s put it like this: they are in a better position to register such undercurrents than anybody else. One of the reasons is that art can escape the limitations of language, which is itself very politicized. Terms such as ‘democracy, free markets and human rights’ are political constructs, that may mean ‘tools of Western imperialism’ to the one and ‘the best of possible worlds’ to the other. Language thus separates people and brings confusion into communication.

This, by the way, is also one of the most fundamental shortcomings of academic thought in the West: it cannot escape the political or ideological charge of language – think of terms such as ‘democracy’ or ’freedom’ or the concept of ‘submission to common law’ which are automatically associated to positive ideas and a certain ideal of Western civilisation, while terms such as ‘elitism’, ‘obedience’ or the concept of ‘defense of honour’ or the belief in the primacy of divine or natural law over man-made law are given negative meanings. My experience shows that these positive and negative connotations are not universally shared. They are however embedded in the language academics, journalists and other opinion-makers use to describe the world.

Yet, through art, it’s possible to explore much further. Rather than divide, as language does, visual representations unite, precisely because the two or three dimensions cannot be reduced to the one dimension of language in one unequivocal way, but allow for plural interpretations.

To answer your question about how I integrate myself into the context of an ‘other’, my idea is to go beyond my own proper perspective which is of course very limited by my subjectivity. This is why my practice is mainly about facilitating exchanges. Currently I’m trying to facilitate representation of the dynamic art scenes in the Middle East and South Asia in Holland, and I want to let the artists and curators from these scenes define their own representation rather then just making a show based on my own preferences. My role is then mostly defining and preparing the situation on the Dutch side, to ensure that the voices from those regions are properly understood.

Q  Who are the theorists or writers whose works interest you?

Although I read a lot, I’m not very oriented towards theory in the sense that my practice flows out from my life experiences or the impressions I receive when contemplating art, reading novels, etc. But I have been inspired by authors such as Slavoy Zizek, Achille Mbembe, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, to name just a few. I also find Faisal Devji inspiring.

In a way, the rhetorics of Osama Ben Laden also touch me. It’s not only for his heroic aspect, like a kind of Robin Hood or Don Quixote figure, but also for his challenge to the Islam itself. In the West he is discarded as lunatic and fanatical. But the clear fact is that the real fundamentalists are the clergies, the religious authorities in South Arabia and in every country, who were the first people to declare him as their enemy. Because he poses a challenge comparable to the very early reformist movements of Christianity, that were mercilessly persecuted by the Church. He’s absolutely not a fundamentalist in the sense that he mixes everything from Nike culture to Shia concepts of martyrdom which are absolutely heretic to the mainstream Sunni Islam. And his whole ideology of global jihad is completely a product of Western thought, absolutely alien to the way ordinary Muslims in the Arab world or Afghanistan and Pakistan think. Osama has somehow put the Islamic world upside down and has liberated a lot of energies – which are immediately condemned as a threat by the West and defined as terrorism.

In fact, most of the suicide bombers or principal terrorists are all well educated and have been radicalised in the West, not in Afghanistan or Yemen. You may say it’s a by product of our Western civilization, like a global poison producing its own antidote.

Q  Indeed, terrorism has become one of today’s central preoccupations or obsessions.

A  Actually it’s a very psychological thing. A traffic accident or even falling off your bed and breaking your head is a more real threat to your life than terrorism. What is challenging in what Ben Laden did is exactly on the psychological level. He challenges our fears.

In the West many people believe we have surpassed religion; that religion is something for retarded people, and that we are enlightened. However, to replace religion, the God that we claimed to be dead, we immediately grab the whole thing about security, veneration of life and fear for death. Today, security is a religion because it’s absolute and you can’t use any argument against it. I am a convinced secular and I have done my homework to deal with the absence of God in life, but when I look around me, I think not many were ready for the demise of religion. Even Nietzsche, who was the most radical assassin of the idea of God, ended up lunatic. Sometimes I think it would be better if the Western masses become religious, Christian again. So that they can deal with the idea of death within the symbolic culture proposed by the church and get on with life. As long as they don’t impose it on me!

Q  This is what motivated you to dig into other cultures and to practice in the cross-over fields between the Western world and, let’s say, the world of its ‘other’ ?

A  Yes. I try to find other representations of humanity in the Middle Eastern or the South Asian cultures and beyond. At a deeper level, I’m interested in finding a reflection of the West over there. It’s something that I really should do since I’m from the West and concerned about the state of my own culture. And what I find is that the West is attached to its own ideology in an almost religious way – including its portrayal of ‘the other’- and that we must seek a way out from this dead end.

Interview made by Sylvie Lin in February, 2010, Paris. An edited version of the interview, translated into Chinese, was published on ‘Artco’ monthly in Taiwan, in August 2010. All rights reserved.

For more info about Robertk’s education and working experiences, see Part I of the interview

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